Dock workers at the UK’s largest container port have gone on strike for the first time in 30 years.
About 1,900 members of the Unite union at Felixstowe in Suffolk are walking out for eight days in a dispute over pay.
Unite said members rejected a 7% pay offer from the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company, which it said was below the rate of inflation.
A port spokesman said the strike was “disappointing”.
A picket line formed early on Sunday as the strike began, and the union said it would be manned until 22:00 on each day of the walkout.
Miles Hubbard, from Unite’s regional office, told BBC: “Very few people reported for work this morning.
“The picket line has been in place since 6am and we’re getting great support from the public.”
About 2,550 people work at the Port of Felixstowe – the country’s busiest port, handling about 48% of the UK’s container trade. Striking workers include crane drivers, machine operators and stevedores who load and unload ships.
Port spokesman Paul Davey said the average pay for workers at Felixstowe was £43,000, and employees had been offered a 7% rise plus a single payment of £500.
He said the offer represented an increase of between 8.1% and 9.6%, depending upon the category of worker at the port, at a time when the average pay increase in the country was 5%.
“We’ve got a shrinking economy, we’re going into recession… I think that’s a very fair offer indeed,” he said.
Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme, he added the strikes were part of Unite’s “national agenda”.
“It serves their purpose well to have a strike here at Felixstowe… I know many of them [workers] feel they’re being used as pawns in this game.”
Freight transport body Logistics UK said it was “not expecting massive disruption” from the walkout.
A spokesperson for the trade association told the BBC: “Felixstowe is not a ‘just-in-time’ delivery port – everything coming in is scheduled well in advance.
“If it [the strike] goes on for longer than eight days then those using the port will be looking at alternative routes, but at the moment there is plenty of stock in the supply chain. Others have already been planning alternative routes – we’re not expecting panic.”
The spokesperson added: “As an industry, we are incredibly flexible and have been working for a while to put these goods into alternative ports if they have to be.”
Major shipping group Maersk warned that it expected the strike to cause serious disruption with some vessels significantly delayed.
Dr Kamran Mahroof, associate professor in supply chain analytics at the University of Bradford, told the BBC: “Although a lot of the goods that pass through this particular port might be your fridges and laptops, there will be a lot of frozen goods foods that might also be passing through this channel.
“So there will be disruptions, but the importance here is to ensure that it is limited only for eight days as they say.
“Prolonging this might mean we might have to divert where goods go, but infrastructure might not be able to cope.”
Marc Ashdown, BBC business correspondent
“Don’t ask for a pay rise.” That was the message from the governor of the Bank of England in the spring. Andrew Bailey feared the more money workers manage to squeeze out of employers, the higher inflation could spiral.
Since then it has risen from 7% to just over 10% and is predicted to peak at as high as 13% over the coming year.
That is why unions at the Port of Felixstowe say a 7% pay deal is not good enough for workers who are struggling with rising bills at home.
And that is the conundrum facing both the bank and the incoming prime minister.
How to get inflation under control while helping people with rocketing energy bills, increases in food and fuel prices, and rising mortgage and rent costs?
It is an especially tricky puzzle, given that some of the factors currently driving inflation – the war in Ukraine, soaring wholesale gas prices and a general global downturn – are difficult to influence.
But until the tide is turned and the cost-of-living starts to recede rather than rise, it will also be difficult to convince workers not to push for higher wage settlements.
And dock workers at Felixstowe may not be the last workforce we see taking to picket lines.
‘Huge impact on business’
Some businesses have expressed concern about the action.
Adam Searle, managing director of haulage firm CP Transport, said if his firm did not move any containers this week it could stand to lose £60,000-£70,000.
He said: “Throughout Suffolk the bill could run into the millions and throughout the country a lot more.
“It’s not going to affect food supply chains because all the fresh produce is already in stock, but it will affect the supply chain in terms of furniture, fences and random bits and bobs.”
Derek Hailstone, co-owner of Mick’s Cycles in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, said the strike had “the potential to affect us as most of our stock comes into the UK through Felixstowe”.
And Haulage company Turners of Soham in Cambridgeshire, which moves about 500 containers out of the port every day, said the walkout could cause problems.
“About 30% of our business is at Felixstowe, so it’s going to have a huge impact,” said Paul Day, managing director.
Explaining the reasons for the action, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Felixstowe docks is enormously profitable.”
Together with its parent company, CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd, they could “give Felixstowe workers a decent pay raise”, she said.
“It’s clear both companies have prioritised delivering multi-million pound profits and dividends rather than paying their workers a decent wage.”
Robert Morton, Unite national officer, also told the BBC: “The people in Felixstowe aren’t particularly militant and that’s been shown by the fact there hasn’t been a dispute for 30 years. But people are angry now a company who made £240m over the last two years are unwilling to share it with them.”
He said dock workers were going to be paid £370 per week with strike pay.
“Our members are understanding of what they will lose, but they’re looking at what they can gain as well.”
Meanwhile, the port said its staff union, which represents about 500 clerical and engineering employees, had “voted to accept the same pay offer that Unite has refused to put to its members”.
Unite said it had balloted the dock workers, not the clerical groups represented by the Port of Felixstowe staff union.
Referring to the staff who had accepted the offer, a Unite spokesperson said: “This group of members have the right to accept the offer from the company but Unite’s dockers want to press for 10%.”
Strike action at the port is expected to last until Monday 29 August.
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